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OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR

The Indian-born, Harvard-educated director Mira Nair knows a thing or two about culture shock, bigotry and the immigrant's burdens of adjustment--three of melodrama's classic subjects. But she is never content with merely yanking at our heartstrings. Unlike more straight-faced, straitlaced filmmakers, this independent thinker also has a healthy grasp of the absurd: That's why the Indian newsstand man she found stranded in Manhattan in her documentary So Far From India and the displaced Delhi strivers she plunked down in the U.S. rural South in her fictional Mississippi Masala not only reinvented themselves but comically changed the resistant natives around them.

At first glance, The Perez Family might seem an inappropriate undertaking for this director. It concerns Cuban exiles confronting the new world of South Florida at the time of the Mariel boatlift, and when last we checked, Nair was neither Cuban nor American and had never been employed playing the congas. But her credentials as an outsider and her empathy for people set adrift in strange lands serve her well. Nair slips as effortlessly into the sensuality of Cubano culture as she does into the odd limbo of the Marielito encampments at the Orange Bowl, and from these visits she builds a parable about family ties and the healing force of love that's even more vivid than Christine Bell's original novel.

The art-house success of Mississippi Masala and the enduring reputation of Salaam Bombay! probably earned Nair her shots at casting Andy Garcia or Al Pacino as the new film's lead--but let's give thanks they both turned her down. The hero, one Juan Raul Perez, is a kind of counter-revolutionary paradigm, a former sugar-field owner who's spent the last twenty years in a Castro jail for burning his cane rather than yielding it to the new socialism. Garcia might have proven too pretty for the part, and Pacino's memorable portrayal of the Cuban coke lord Tony Montana in Scarface might have given rise to odious comparisons.

As it is, the exemplary Alfred Molina (an English-born product of Spanish and Italian parents) is just right. The thoughtful Juan (like previous Nair protagonists) is virtually imprisoned by his past, tyrannized by nostalgia. In his Felliniesque jailhouse dreams, members of his long-lost family gambol angelically on a beach, and the '57 Pontiac in his mind's eye remains as shiny as the day it was bought. So when Juan, now grizzled and shabby, is suddenly released and packed onto a boat for Miami, all that consumes him is reuniting with his wife, Carmela (Anjelica Huston), and a grown daughter (Trini Alvarado) he barely knows.

Enter Dorita, aka "Dottie," a saucy, smartmouthed Cuban field worker and semipro streetwalker whose aggressive (but naive) American Dream is to meet John Wayne, then conquer Miami. A vampish Marisa Tomei lets her sashays and processed Latin sensuality verge into cliche, but when she starts to fascinate the long-celibate Juan Raul, we believe the connection. Not only that, it's "Dottie," the freshly minted yanqui, who pulls off their escape from U.S. internment by trumping up a fictional nuclear family of Perezes--silent grandfather (Lazaro Perez), ragamuffin son (Jose Felipe Padron), bewildered husband (Molina)--to impress the American sponsors.

The irony of the piece, subtly explored by Nair and scriptwriter Robin Swicord, is, of course, that Juan and Dottie's newfangled family of convenience grows more authentic and vital than the one Juan left in Havana two decades ago. The addition of Chazz Palminteri as a Miami cop with whom the long-suffering wife, Carmela, is now falling in love may seem a little pat. But this bittersweet tale of love, old and new, absorbs that, too.

She may have been raised in Orissa, India, but Nair seems instantly at home on the teeming salsa streets of Little Havana, circa 1980, in its fragrant coffee bars and over-decorated nightclubs. She also enlivens her cultural tragicomedy with some pungent minor characters. There's Carmela's slick, Americanized brother, Angel (Diego Wallraff), who insists that she carry a pistol to protect herself against the onrushing riffraff from Mariel. And in a bow to Nair's own roots, the bureaucratic (but noble) immigration officer who eventually frees the Perez family into the new world is of Indian origin (Ranjit Chowdhry).

As usual, Nair neatly suspends her drama of cultural collision between tears and laughter, and she gives this able cast--particularly the craggy Molina and the hot-blooded Tomei--plenty of room for emotional improvisation. Huston's Carmela, by contrast, is a picture of patient dignity--at least until the inevitable moment of truth when she comes face-to-face with a husband she no longer knows very well.

"Hell is waiting," Juan Raul laments. But if that's true, heaven may be the capacity to reinvent oneself. The Perez Family, in a final moment of glory, generously gives that luxury to another group of Mira Nair strivers who might otherwise strangle on the past. Instead, their survival is a spectacle both lovely and satisfying.

 
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